“I love redemption,” said Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. “But I hate redemption tales that pretend that redemption is this tidy thing.”
In a conversation with Los Angeles Times columnist and fellow memoirist Meghan Daum at MOCA Grand Avenue, Strayed discussed the perils and pleasures of writing about personal history–history like her solo journey into the wilderness at age 26, in the summer of 1995.
“I always say that memoir is not the art form of what happened but rather how the writer makes sense of what happened,” said Strayed. It took her over a decade–years during which she wrote and published a novel, and gave birth to two children–to figure out that this story was worth telling.
The story begins in an unexpected place: a line at the outdoor emporium REI outside Minneapolis. Strayed’s truck had gotten stuck in the snow, and she had to buy a shovel to dig it out. She spotted a book at the cash register–The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California–and although she’d never heard of the trail before, had never been to California, and had never even gone backpacking, a few months later she was in the Mojave Desert with 24.5 pounds of water strapped into an enormous backpack she nicknamed “Monster.”
“A lot of this book just has to do with just how utterly unprepared you were for this,” said Daum. “Does this shock you today?”
“I do think it’s ridiculous,” said Strayed. But she’d grown up in the wilderness and felt safe in the country. Plus, the passion of people at REI for their gear was infectious. “I walked out of there feeling like an expert,” she said. “I had all this stuff, so that meant I was ready. It turned out that wasn’t the case.”
For the first eight days of her hike, she didn’t see a human being, nor did she realize that it’s not normal to be unable to lift your pack off the ground. “I thought that’s what backpackers did,” she recalled. “I didn’t know it was bad. I knew it was heavy.” But when other hikers looked with horror at her pack–and her feet, which were destroyed by boots a size too small–she realized just how unprepared she was.
Daum also asked about the process of writing a memoir of transformation. “Did you ever feel under pressure to say, I have to have the clouds part and someone speak to me from above?” she asked.
“I was so conscious of working against that,” said Strayed. “I wanted to write a book that was as true as a book can be.” The journey transformed her, but discreetly.
Although the book is personally revealing, it’s not confessional in the traditional sense. Strayed chose to omit certain details and cut passages that she felt told too much. “I’m always asking myself, for what purpose am I confessing this thing?” She added that labeling writing by women as “confessional” has historically been a way to marginalize bold writers.
Strayed admitted that writing about going to the bathroom in the desert wasn’t pretty, but she considers her own admissions to be far from the thorniest part of the writing process. “The most difficult thing when writing a memoir is writing about other people,” said Strayed. She had to account for her parents–to tell the story of her father’s abuse–and write about her siblings.
Strayed also draws on her personal life in her work as an advice columnist. Since 2010, she has written an anonymous column called “Dear Sugar” on TheRumpus.net. (In February she revealed her identity for the first time.) She was reluctant at first to take the job. “Who am I to give advice? I don’t have any experience as a therapist; I haven’t even gone to therapy very much,” she said. “The thing I do have to offer is that I’m a storyteller, I’m a writer.”
Strayed pointed to one column of hers, “The Truth That Lives There,” encouraging breakups for people who love their romantic partner but want to leave, that elicited a huge, mostly grateful, response. She only realized after writing it how powerful her message might be. “People responded to my giving them permission to do what was painful, and to break someone else’s heart if it meant that they needed to open up their life,” she said. “I’ve wrecked a lot of marriages, so that stays with me.”
In the question-and-answer session, audience members asked Strayed about the role of anger in good writing and about the mechanics of baring secrets.
“I do think that good writing can come from rage and anger,” said Strayed, particularly when it’s anger about something external, like a political issue. But to write about relationships, you need to come to grips with a situation–and writing, for her, has been a part of that process. “When you write about people who failed you, it has to do with acceptance,” she said. “It’s not that these things happened, but that you accept that they’re true.”
Strayed said she asks her husband before she reveals something from his personal life in a column. But in Wild she changed people’s names.
She was also asked how she’ll introduce the book to her family: her children are six and seven. “I’ll leave it to them to read when they’re ready,” she said. But she will tip them off to the chapter with the sex scene, so that they can skip that if they’d like.
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Buy the book: Skylight Books, Amazon, Powell’s.
Read opinions by authors and artists about the role of solitude in their busy lives here.
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.